A Visit to Julian Assange in Prison

In Mid-December 2023, Charles Glass, the esteemed writer, journalist, broadcaster, and publisher visited with Julian Assange, an inmate at Belmarsh Prison in the U.K. Assange has been confined there since April, 2019. He is awaiting his final appeal to quash U.S. efforts to extradite him to face some of the same Espionage Act charges I was confronted with. Glass chronicles the visit in a recent piece in The Nation. His account took me right back to prison. Glass’s visit with Assange could have been a visit with me.

I fondly remember Charles Glass. He wrote to me while I was in FCI Englewood, the prison I was bound in after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act in 2015. He and others sent me a few of his books, notably Americans in Paris and Tribes with Flags. I was extremely grateful for such support. I had read them before, but reading from prison allows a different perspective, even on paths previously traveled. My prison eyes were reading them for the first time. In some ways, his visit with Assange was a similar overture of support for me and my experience in prison.

I make no attempts to compare myself to Julian Assange, but I know what he is going through and what he is facing. Glass’s statement that Assange’s “…days are all the same: the confined space, the loneliness, the books, the memories, the hope that his lawyers’ appeal against extradition and life imprisonment in the United States will succeed” also applied to me. But, what was particularly profound for me was reading about Glass’s experience as a visitor to someone confined to prison. For me, time with a visitor was a highly-desired oasis in the never-ending desert that is prison. It was the one time I could have a more substantial connection with the world outside the prison walls. Email and letters were always appreciated, but nothing could replace actual contact, or at least being in the same room as a loved one or supporter. The value of having a visitor cannot be understated, the other days fighting against the droll, oppression, and monotony of prison were all endured for the singular experience of a visit. I imagine that Assange has had the same longing anticipation of an upcoming visit, the one time in prison when you can be reminded that you are still alive, still human.

Glass deftly characterizes the prison where Assange is being held as “bleak,” and “inhumane.” I realized the same descriptors apply to the experience visitors must face. Visitors and inmates alike go through an emotional and offensive gauntlet just for the privilege of a visit in prison. For me, it was a painful and desired rollercoaster of emotions with the high of the visit and the low of the eventual parting at the end of it. It was always a struggle to resist having the visit tainted by the dehumanizing strip searches I had to endure before and after each visit. It was difficult to truly understand that my visitor went through a similar hell. Glass’s visit with Assange re-informed me of the other side of prison visit.

When visiting anyone in prison, inmate and visitor alike are faced with arbitrary rules with no real guidance or reason. It is a daunting task trying to comply with the rules when they change at the whims of the gate-keepers. I had a painful chuckle reading how the gate-keepers deemed books Glass brought for Assange as “fire hazards” and therefore not allowed. Belmarsh’s other restrictions on books, how they can be received, and how many an inmate can have are not dissimilar to the same arbitrary rules at FCI Englewood. There is no redress, no challenge of authority at this level. If you want the visit or the books, you have to follow the rules, whatever they are and however they are enforced at the time.

Whenever my wife Holly would visit, I could sense her effort to be strong for me and not give in to the hell she had to go through just to have time sitting next to me and holding my hand. Time and again she endured a gauntlet of nonsensical and punitively arbitrary visiting rules. Holly never knew if what she was wearing would be acceptable or if the body search would once again border on assault.  Approaching the prison on visiting day, she could only hope that the gate-keepers were having at least a good day and maybe save her some indignity. Some guards had well-founded reputations among inmates of being unnecessarily cruel, particularly with female visitors. I was also fortunate enough to be visited by other friends, including Norman Solomon from Roots Action. In many ways, I felt horrible that they had to endure such humiliation to come see me, prison is designed to prove to you that you don’t have much worth, if any. I imagine that Assange may have felt the same as he was visiting with Glass.

I always wondered what it was like for Holly and Norman waiting in the visiting room with other “free” people who had been successful in getting past the gate-keepers to visit with their inmates. Though strangers to each other, they shared an unfortunate commonality, hoping for nothing more than time with a loved one or friend. Regardless of their lives outside prison walls, each and every visitor has to hope that the system will at least allow for the simplest of human needs, time.

Somewhat shamefully, I found myself a bit jealous to read that Glass and Assange were able to be face to face during their visit. The setup in FCI Englewood was a bank of attached chairs, Holly and I could not face each other. Any motion to sit askew or move around in the chair to face each other could be grounds for ending the visit. Once I found Holly, we could have an embrace at the beginning and end, maybe a kiss. I rarely let go of her hand during the visits. Once together, a big chunk of time was spent deciding what to get from the vending machines. Then Holly would have to leave me to stand in line at the vending machines and then the microwave. The choices I had, if the gate-keepers bothered with restocking were not much different from the junk available to Glass to get for Assange. I know that Assange felt as I did, regardless of the food in the visiting room. It was leaps and bounds better than the food served any other time in prison.

Once the preliminaries were taken care of, we could get down to the visit. But, there was never time enough. There was never enough time to say or hear what you wanted or hoped. In prison, only during visits does time move faster. A final embrace and then getting in line for another strip search was how the visits with Holly ended for me. I felt lucky if she was in the first group of visitors who were escorted out, that way neither of us could see the pain on each other’s face from across the room. Glass’s visit with Assange ended pretty much the same way, the visitor is free to go outside, the prison goes back to his cell.

I encourage you to read Glass’s account of his visit with Assange. It is much more than merely the account of a visit with a person in prison, it is a representation of the Espionage Act and how it is being used by the U.S. government to silence and punish those who dare expose its wrongdoings and illegalities. Much like prison visiting rules, use of the Espionage Act is arbitrary and punitive, justice or security have nothing to do with it. We are all becoming prisoners to the whims of the gate-keepers who are using the Espionage Act to keep us ignorant and in line. With Assange’s extradition, freedom of the press, along with government accountability and a myriad of other supposed freedoms from government persecution are at stake. We will each find ourselves either the visitor or the visited if the current use of the Espionage Act is allowed to continue. Whether visitor or visited, the Espionage Act puts us all in prison. I was there with Charles Glass in that prison visiting room. Considering the stakes if Julian Assange is extradited, we all were.

Jeffrey Sterling is a former CIA case officer who was at the Agency, including the Iran Task Force, for nearly a decade. He filed an employment discrimination suit against the CIA, but the case was dismissed as a threat to national security. He served two and a half years in prison after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act. No incriminating evidence was produced at trial and Sterling continues to profess his innocence. His memoir, “Unwanted Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower,” was published in late 2019. He is currently a contributor to ProgressiveHub.net focusing on whistleblower issues.